Photos by Ken Hicks
In 1998, Dave Tate was a Westside Barbell–trained powerlifter who made his living as a personal trainer at a private club in Columbus, Ohio. Sixteen years later, he’s one of a select few with the power to shape the entire fitness industry. His fitness equipment sales company, EliteFTS.com, is a massively successful monolith with a slew of experts who contribute to a robust online community. He’s also still jacked out of his mind at age 46.
Tate’s success, however, didn’t come without a fight. EliteFTS started in a spare bedroom, financed with credit card debt, and he’s been training around — and through — serious injuries (including a full hip replacement) for nearly three decades. Throw in a serious case of dyslexia — he was relegated to special education classes throughout school — and you’ve got a guy who’s not supposed to be this successful.
Your training has made a dramatic shift over the past few years from powerlifting to bodybuilding. What’s that been like?
Everything in powerlifting happens in the same movement plane. You’re going in the same direction every time. I competed in powerlifting from 1983 to 2005, so on average, I squatted heavy at least once per week for all those years, with similar technique and a similar stance. That’s a lot of reps in the same movement pattern.
By the time I retired, I couldn’t hold a barbell to squat and I couldn’t bench-press. I was done. I love training, though, so to keep doing it, I had to rediscover what I loved about it. That process of rediscovery led me back into bodybuilding because I had some roots there.
What are the main differences between these two styles of training?
I had to learn how to stop training the movement and start training the muscle. They’re two completely different things.
For example, with the bench press, I tore both my pecs during my career, so I had to learn how to bench without using my pecs if I wanted to compete in powerlifting. That meant I was primarily using my shoulders and my triceps. My bench press was a shoulder rotation and a triceps extension.
When I started directly training my chest again, I had no idea what to do, and the weights I had to use in order to start movements with a chest contraction were so ridiculously light that it was frustrating. I had to understand that this would be a gradual process and that the muscle was the thing, not the movement. Once I made that adjustment, my strength came back.
What can other guys take away from the way you currently train?
Right now, I’m using a bodybuilding-based program. John “Mountain Dog” Meadows writes my programs, and I modify them based on a sort of block periodization model, with 12-week training blocks. I think other guys can get something out of this because it’s kept me injury-free and because things change often enough to keep it interesting.
For the first 12 weeks, I try to get as strong as I can. I can’t handle that for more than 12 weeks because I’ll break down, but for that initial period, I’m not worried about contractions or tempo or anything like that. It’s just old-school bodybuilding, trying to lift more weight and do more reps every time.
The next 12 weeks are kind of a “stagnation” phase where I’ll still do my compound lifts in a movement-based way, trying to use the same weights I used for the first segment of the program. The difference happens with my smaller movements. There, I’ll take things to a complete stretch and flex and make it all about the muscle.
For the last 12 weeks, everything — even the compound exercises — is about tempo, contraction and flexing. The weights will drop, and I’ll tighten up my diet and try to get leaner.
This sequence has kept me injury-free for a long time now. I’ve had no soft-tissue injuries, and I’ve really been able to keep joint problems at bay.
You underwent a full hip replacement last year. What has it been like to come back from that?
That was diagnosed in November 2012, and I had it done in February of last year. The biggest thing I learned through this whole process is that a lot of what I was reading and doing with regard to joint health was completely ass-backward.
Your joints only have so many repetitions in them before they wear out. That’s why they call it “wear and tear.” I’m genetically prone to degeneration, I’ve weighed over 250 pounds since high school, and I spent over two decades powerlifting. Those are some pretty big risk factors.
For a lot of that time, I was doing mobility work for my hips and lower back. All that was doing was putting 300 to 500 repetitions of movement onto my hip every time I walked into the gym, and it created overuse. I thought I was making things better, but I was tearing the shit out of it.
I was in no hurry to come back from this one, but a year later, I’m stronger than I was before the surgery. I push things harder than most people, but I’m still conservative about it. What you have to realize is that although you need to be careful with any joint replacement, it’s not the end of your career. I still train my legs really heavy — probably harder than I did before I had a hip replacement. I had to make some modifications as far as my range of motion goes, but other than that, everything is fine.
For people who don’t know your story, talk about what it was like for someone with undiagnosed dyslexia to make it in the business world — and in life.
I found out I had to make the decision to understand and accept the limitations I was working with. That was crucial, because it told me where I stood, and I knew I had to do a little more.
I have to work a little bit harder than someone else might. I can either bitch or cry about it, or I can just start working harder because of it. When you’re in that situation, you have to get away from enablers — people who’ll tell you it’s okay to not do things because of your limitations.
For me, it’s, “So what?” Just because you have that doesn’t mean you can’t do this. All it means is that it might be harder. I’m never going to be the smartest guy in the world, but you know what? There’s only one guy who gets that title. I’ll never be the strongest powerlifter in the world or the best bodybuilder, but there’s only one guy who gets each of those. I’ve accepted these facts.
The thing is, there’s a whole lot of room underneath that one person. You can just accept that you’re at the bottom of the barrel and stay there, or you can follow what inspires you and see where that can really lead.
What are your goals for 2014?
This is always a tough question for me because I don’t like goals. I see goals as limitations. I’d rather have objectives to meet — both for myself and for my business.
In the gym, I want to keep or exceed the lean body mass that I had before. I’m not really concerned with strength anymore. It’s just not worth it to see what my best bench or deadlift is going to be. There’s a price for that, and I’m no longer willing to pay that price to see what I can do for a one-rep max of anything. I’ve already paid that price several times over. I don’t want to do it anymore.
I’m still a meathead at heart, so I’m more concerned about looking jacked and being somewhat strong in every movement. I’ve learned over time that I just want to be able to keep training hard, and I know what disrupts that. I don’t want those disruptions anymore. Training hard is what frees me up from the stresses of business and everything else, so I just want to keep doing it.
Other than that, I want EliteFTS to keep educating people on the process of how to become stronger. What I want is to be the company that’s known for providing information that allows coaches, trainers, lifters and everyone else to be able to figure out their own programs that work for them.